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REVIEW: Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell

Dear Ms. Campbell,

courtesan.gifMuch has been said about your debut, Claiming the Courtesan. Arguments raced round and round the blogosphere; discussions sprouted from here to Jennifer Crusie's blog. After reading comments from people who reviled the book to comments from people who adored it, I decided to read it and see for myself what the brouhaha was about.

As by now everyone and her sister-in-law knows, Claiming the Courtesan centers on Justin, Duke of Kylemore, and his former courtesan, Soraya, aka Verity Ashton, whom he kidnaps at gunpoint, drags to Scotland, and eventually, forces sex on in an attempt to reawaken her sexual side.

Verity wants no more part of her former life as Soraya, and is ready to live a life of good works and celibacy with her brother Ben on the sheep farm the money she earned on her back will finance. It's Ben who convinces Verity to split town without a goodbye to the duke as soon as her contract with him is up. Verity does this after brushing aside a graceless proposal from the duke, who wants to spite his mother by marrying Soraya.

When the duke finds his erstwhile mistress, he comes down on her and Ben like the wrath of Satan. His henchmen hold down Ben while others spirit the duke and Verity away. At first, Kylemore mistakenly believes that Verity and Ben are lovers, but even after he realizes that this is not the case, his rage knows few bounds.

It took me a while to become engaged in the story because Justin and Verity both start out melodramatic and shrill, and the language in which their story is told is so heightened that it required some effort to get used to it. Even after I did, on occasion a line here or there would pull me out of the story because it seemed over the top. For example, “A carillon of victory joined the desire pounding through his veins to create a thunderous symphony of desire.” (p.136)

Justin is more than a little crazed for a good chunk of the book. Part of him is aware that his actions have no excuse, and that part of him also deeply respects Verity. At the same time, there are also many moments when he shows Verity disrespect not just in his treatment of her but also in his thoughts, where he refers to her as “the strumpet,–? “the baggage,–? and “the trull,–? and thinks about teaching her that her place is in his bed.

Verity also has a kind of split personality, in that she refuses to acknowledge that Soraya, the role she played in over a decade as a courtesan, is actually a part of her. She represses the sexual part of herself, which is exactly what Justin wants to bring out in her.

These dualities in Justin and Verity were so pronounced in the beginning of Claiming the Courtesan that I had a difficult time relating to either character. Both of them seemed so all-over-the-place in their behavior and their thoughts that neither one felt quite real to me, and they seemed more like broad caricatures at first.

I had difficulty imagining someone as unstable as Justin smoothly managing multiple estates as he had done, or someone as repressive of her sexuality as Verity in the role of seductive courtesan. A brief scene of them as protector and mistress at the beginning of the book was not enough to help me understand how these two had functioned in those roles, and I nearly stopped reading, not because of the forced sex but because of these characterization issues and because of my aforementioned reaction to the language.

The middle section of the book was the most interesting to me because here the characters calmed down somewhat and became more thoughtful and contemplative, interested in understanding each other's motives and their own. This made them feel more like real people, and I began to care about them more. There were some interesting dynamics between them in this section, as each began to suss out the other's vulnerabilities, and to understand that their own feelings were not as clear cut as they had thought.

Unfortunately, this section felt truncated to me, when Verity forgave Justin rather quickly and didn't seem to retain much trauma from his earlier treatment of her, and Justin reformed so speedily and thoroughly that he no longer seemed like the same character from the beginning of the book.

I realize that I was meant to feel that Justin and Verity had to some degree loved one another from the first page, but except for a couple of brief moments, I couldn't connect with that love emotionally in the first third of the book. I found myself wishing for a flashback to the beginning of their sexual relationship, so that I could see what that dynamic had been like and who they were back then.

The final portion of the book was not as realistic, nor as interesting as the middle section, but in some ways it was actually more satisfying for me, because by this point the characters, while a bit too sweet, were also more cohesive and that made them easier for me to relate to. Even though I didn't find their transformation completely convincing, I started to root for them a bit here, and enjoyed reading about their romantic feelings.

This section was marred somewhat by the emergence of the villainess who seemed to me to be just too evil to be very believable, and by the (in my opinion) simplistic way that Verity's brother Ben's conflict with Justin was resolved.

I appreciate that you attempted something very ambitious in this book, and tried to create a rich story of psychological depth and complexity, but to my thinking, this goal was not quite attained. I don't feel that it was a waste of time or money to read the book, but I also didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped to.

Claiming the Courtesan kept me reading, but it did not rivet me. My reaction to this book was not as powerful as I hoped or expected; as I write this, I feel somewhat detached, and for this reason, I can neither rail against Claiming the Courtesan nor champion it. C for this one.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

4 Comments

  1. Eva Gale
    May 09, 2007 @ 09:51:50

    Wow, that’s very interesting that you wanted a flashback and why. Interesting. Writers are told often to go forward, you don’t want to go back halting the action.

    But in this case,it may have lent to more empathy with the hero which was the biggest hurdle.

    I’ll have to think about that one.

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  2. Jan
    May 09, 2007 @ 11:17:00

    Thank you for the review. If I trust anyone’s opinion on this book it would be yours.

    “A carillon of victory joined the desire pounding through his veins to create a thunderous symphony of desire.â€?

    Whoa, even I know that’s not a good idea. Was the prose outside of occurences like that OK, or was it slightly purple?

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  3. Robin
    May 09, 2007 @ 11:29:05

    A very articulate review, Janine. It’s interesting because I agree with many of your observations about the book, but I liked the schizo part much better than you did, I think. I can barely remember the second half of the book, in fact, except for the IMO too far over the top Kylemore to the rescue ending. I agree with you, though, both about the villain and about the way Ben is given short-shrift in terms of a believable and nuanced resolution. You are so right that Ben deserved more from the book.

    I’m not sure I completely understand your initial reaction to Soraya/Verity, though. Wouldn’t a woman who could compartmentalize sex be a potentially very powerful courtesan? I think one of the reasons she was so afraid of Justin for all those years was that she knew (at least subconsciously) that he could confuse that separation (which IMO he did, right from the beginning, and Verity was basically in denial of that throughout their relationship and the novel itself). Her previous two lovers were easy prey, so to speak, in that she was either much younger or way more experienced. I got the sense that a lot of her reputation was cultivated by her first lover (and by all those reports of duels and deaths over her beauty, which IMO was way unbelievably over the top, even though it made it a little more understandable why she’d be suspicious of passion). So in a sense, she was a woman who really did sleep with men primarily for money, until Justin challenged those boundaries, that is. While I wish Verity hadn’t been so afraid of her own sexuality (i.e. shame substitutes for her missing hymen), at least she was actually, you know, selling her body.

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  4. Janine
    May 09, 2007 @ 15:27:26

    Eva, I don’t know if it would have had to be a flashback per se. A prologue could have also done the trick. But I wanted more of their earlier relationship.

    Jan, thanks! I would say the prose was lavender, but these things are to some degree in the eye of the beholder.

    Robin, I think it was her sense of deep shame about her sexuality that made it difficult for me to imagine her being seductive and powerfully sexual. To some degree one has to love one’s sexual side, I think, to exude seductiveness and sexual power. If Verity had just been a common prostitute, who only had to lie there and let men do their thing, that would have been one thing, but the role of courtesan is different.

    ReplyReply

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